“The Pitfalls Of Self-Righteousness”: The Sanders Campaign Needs More Self-Reflection And Less Self-Righteousness
Brooklyn was home to the debate heard ’round the world on Thursday evening, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finally clashed on stage after weeks of increasing hostilities.
The tension was as thick as the candidates’ voices were loud. But while both presidential contenders were fiery, Sanders came off looking particularly irascible. Rather than seizing the opportunity to atone for his campaign’s recent bout of unforced errors, his performance gave weight to the concern Paul Krugman articulated last week: “Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro.”
During the debate, Sanders repeatedly interrupted Clinton, at one point even throwing out a long “excuuuuse me” while wagging his finger. When not interrupting, he often smirked and made faces while Clinton spoke, at one point appearing to mumble a sarcastic “OK.” He laughed out loud as she prepared to answer a question on gun control legislation after Sandy Hook.
In sum, Bernie’s performance oozed acrimony and self-righteousness – the same pitfalls behind his campaign’s controversial blunders of late.
When Sanders said he didn’t consider Clinton “qualified” to be president last week because of her ties to super PACs, a low-blow to the former senator and secretary of state that he’s since walked back, Sanders justified his attack by claiming Clinton had said the same of him. She hadn’t, though – Sanders’ campaign seemingly got that impression from a headline and ran with it without checking Clinton’s actual remarks.
A careless attack, yet one that strikes at the heart of the quest to become the first female president. As Clare Malone and Julia Azari wrote at FiveThirtyEight, “Sanders’s remarks and their interpretation play into discussions of the subtle, pernicious forms of sexism that women in positions of power must deal with. At the core of Clinton’s candidate packaging is the idea that she has for decades been the competent woman behind the scenes a workhorse – not a show pony.”
To be clear: Sanders is a man of impeccable integrity and I have no doubt that he would never intend to use coded language on gender. But he was so confident that he was justified that he didn’t stop to consider the implications of his rhetoric.
This wasn’t the first time. Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, made a similar misstep with sexist overtones when he complained that Clinton’s “ambition” could tear the Democratic Party apart. By definition anyone who runs for president is ambitious – Sanders is calling for a revolution! – but somehow it’s the woman’s ambition that’s dangerous.
Also recall the constant refrain about Clinton’s being too loud, a complaint rarely if ever leveled against the ever-yelling Sanders. And just this week, a Sanders surrogate contrasted Bernie with not simply, say, corporate sell-outs but with “Democratic whores” at a campaign rally.
The Sanders campaign laid the groundwork for these problematic statements by presenting themselves (and apparently believing it) as the campaign that always holds the moral high ground: From Wall Street to small donors, Sanders, unlike Clinton, isn’t spoiled by establishment ties. With this frame of mind, the campaign can dismiss as illegitimate any attempt by Clinton to take Sanders off his high horse. You’re apt to be less careful with potentially tricky topics if you view any critique as by definition illegitimate.
Protected by self-righteousness, there’s little need for self-reflection. Sanders doesn’t seem to realize he’s “starting to sound like his worst followers,” as Krugman wrote. His debate performance showed that the senator is starting to act like them too.
The Republican contest provides a cautionary tale about the importance of self-reflection in the midst of a campaign. A lack of self-awareness lead several GOP candidates to morph into the caricatures of themselves created by critics.
Jeb Bush kicked off his ‘joyful’ presidential bid in June with so much enthusiasm that it was incorporated into his official logo.(!) But then Donald Trump slapped him with the “low energy” label a few months later, and Bush was so consumed with disproving Trump’s critique that he didn’t notice the life evaporating from his campaign. Attempts to show passion at rallies came off as annoyance, while rehearsed debate zingers bumbled even when they hit their mark.
Similarly, Ben Carson entered the race after years of urging from conservatives impressed by his inner-city-to-neurosurgeon pedigree and bold remarks at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Yet as whispers of ineptitude began to swirl around his campaign, Carson himself became increasingly nonsensical as he struggled to prove his depth. He seemed confused by his own alleged life story and baffled by basic foreign policy and economics. He spent his final GOP debates practically catatonic, blissfully unconcerned by his lack of knowledge. Now he’s just a sideshow, providing comic relief as a disastrous Trump campaign surrogate.
Donald Trump, of course, has built his entire brand around a lack of self-awareness. He defends himself against claims that he’s sexist by treating women like objects and dismisses critics who call him a racist by doubling down on race-baiting rhetoric.
Sanders’ campaign has little in common with this Republican circus, of course. But Bernie isn’t impervious to valid criticism, and his campaign must accept this fact and give more thought to the implications of the rhetoric it chooses or risk turning Sanders into a caricature himself – the quintessential Bernie bro.
By: Emily Arrowood, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog, U. S. News and World Report, April 15, 2016
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